Thursday, January 29, 2015

Liz's Top 20 of 2014, Day 3

Pucker up!
Hey, we passed 500 likes on the Facebook version of this quality blog! Thanks! Gianna has volunteered to drive to lucky #500 and give her a smooch. I recommend leaving your doors unlocked in case you're in the bath, lucky fan.


The Orenda by Joseph Boyden was overlooked by too many readers this year. This book is terrific. Three lives--a Jesuit priest, a warrior and leader of his tribe, and a captive woman from a rival tribe--intersect. It's a time of unrest in 17th Century Canada as the Iroquois and Huron tribes have fought for generations. Both groups, though, now confront the invasion of white people onto their lands. This novel is unapologetically violent, but it's also a great war novel, a great adventure novel, and a really intelligent analysis of conflicting cultures.


The Lost Book of Mormon by Avi Steinberg. I admit it; most of my knowledge of the Book of Mormon comes from the Broadway musical. I was close friends with a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when I was in high school, even going to some church potlucks as his guest. I never actually read the Book of Mormon, though, and I'm going to guess that you haven't either. Avi Steinberg isn't Mormon either, but he's fascinated by communities of faith and the uniquely American nature of the LDS church. To be a believer of any religion (or at least the Abraham-based ones), you have to believe that the book at its center is true, be it the Torah or Bible or Quran. Steinberg thus starts with the premise that the Book of Mormon is true and from there begins an exploration and travel narrative following the course of events as outlined in the book. Along the way he meets Mormons on pilgrimages to Central America, and actors reenacting Joseph Smith's journey from average Joe to founder of a new religion. Steinberg also argues that the Book of Mormon should be considered a great work of American literature along the lines of Moby-Dick, an important work in the history and evolution of this country. The Lost Book of Mormon is intriguing, compelling, informative reading.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Liz's Top Twenty of 2014, Day 2


I never watched the US version of The Office and I haven't gotten around to seeing The Mindy Project, so I really didn't have much of an idea who BJ Novak was when I read his short story collection One More Thing. I knew he was a comedian. It turns out he's also a writer.

These are SHORT short stories; some are only a few pages or paragraphs. They are also charming, effervescent, thought-provoking, and irreverent. For example, there's "The Something by John Grisham." Novak riffs on the publishing joke about all of Grisham's titles are "The __________." In this sketch, Grisham delivers his latest manuscript to Doubleday and an intern keys in "The Something" as a place holder until the book is titled. ...Except it goes to press that way. Oops. Another story that stuck in my head is an imagining of a Comedy Central Roast for Nelson Mandela. It's one thing to hear Gilbert Gottfried squawk out raucous jokes at David Hasselhoff's expense, but imagine that voice lampooning one of the great civil rights leaders of the last century. Yeah, I'd watch that.


My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff is a dishy, fun, literary memoir about the year that Rakoff spent working in a New York literary agency. She was waffling with her career direction and relationship and ended up moving into a dump of an apartment with her live-in boyfriend and taking a job in publishing. It turned out that the job was as the assistant to the head of a literary agency with a glorious past and some big author clients. Judy Blume is a client, for instance. So is this guy Jerry who calls in periodically to ask questions about royalties. He's hard of hearing and therefore screams into the phone, and he calls Joanna "Suzanne" all the time. Also, the place stops when Jerry calls. Jerry is the enigmatic J.D. Salinger, and it's 1996, the year Salinger almost breaks his silence and allows a story to be published for the first time in decades. It's 1996, but the office still relies on electric typewriters and dictaphones, and one of Joanna's duties is to reply to the many fan letters Salinger receives. This memoir is eventful, well written, and full of literary dirt. It's about a woman trying to figure out her life while an agency tries to figure out its role in a rapidly changing industry landscape.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Liz's Top Twenty of 2014, Day 1

I just received the latest edition of the Penguin Random House Code of Conduct, so now seems like the ideal time to post a new piece to the blog. (Better now than after I look up the guidelines for social media, right? 2015: The Year of Willful Ignorance.) Also, Gianna seems determined to steal as many of my picks as possible before I have the chance to claim them as my own. Do you all understand the incredible burden I carry in trying to work with that woman? She's the Kim Jong Un of the blog-iverse! (Hack us North Korea! We crave the attention! ...I wonder if taunting dictatorships is in the PRH Code of Conduct? I may never know.)

Gianna is dividing up her picks into fiction and non-fiction. Unlike Gianna, my reading leaning heavily to the fiction side in 2014. I'll give you twenty picks, but it might be a stretch to come up with ten non-fiction ones unless you're okay with me vouching for books I haven't read.
This is the paperback
cover. It goes on sale
 2/3/15. The hardcover
is available now.


The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. I wrote about this book almost a full year ago here. In fact, it was the first book I reviewed in 2014, but even a year later it's still in my head. The short version: the Mary Celeste was considered cursed because her captains kept dying on board, but that didn't stop Captain Benjamin Briggs from setting sail aboard her with his wife and child. Then the ship turned up floating in the Atlantic, no humans aboard, and became the ship of legend. Valerie Martin uses the history of the Mary Celeste, the captain and his family, and that era's fascination with mysticism to craft a great novel. Seances! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! Ghost ships! Why haven't you read this book yet? WHY???


I think Colson chose the
King of Hearts as a sign
of our love. 
The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead. OF COURSE I am picking Colson Whitehead. I hope that in choosing him, he will realize that my love should be requited and in turn choose me. Call me Colson! Why fight fate!? (Is aggressively pursuing an author a violation of the PRH Code of Conduct? Someone needs to look that up for me.) My literary hubby is a genius of dry wit and that's one of the reasons we are so perfect for each other. It's also one of the reasons that The Noble Hustle is so entertaining. I wrote about this book here, but in the event you're link-shy or perhaps worried that by clicking on the link you are going to be called to testify in my upcoming stalking case, allow me to summarize. This book is a chronicle of Whitehead's time preparing for and competing in the World Series of Poker. He undergoes rigorous training (learning how to sit for hours on end), finds sponsors (a Brooklyn bookstore), and studies the history of the game. It's also a chronicle of his funk after getting divorced since the two events overlap in his life. The book is both funny and thoughtful, and it's a book that embraces a philosophy I can support: it's all crap, so we might as well just play games until bedtime.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gianna's Top Twenty of 2014, Day 3

Non Fiction

I read a ton of non fiction this year; I don’t know if it was by coincidence, or the just fact that the year produced so many outstanding books. Either way it was a really rich year and I learned a lot.  I also got pissed off a lot, which is always excellent.

 We’ve all read books that we credit with changing our lives, putting us on a different course. For me, two of the books came to me very close together; Dead Man Walking and Actual Innocence. I am now embarrassed with how fervently I once defended the death penalty, that it was only after reading Sister Helen Prejean that I had the courage to dig a little deeper. It also sent me on a life long quest to become Sister Helen’s best friend, but that’s another story (and possibly a more disturbing one).

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a book for a new generation, a reminder that in many ways, we are still in the early stages of rebuilding a legal system that is so clearly in need of an overhaul.

Bark  was the book I was most looking forward to reading in 2014, the first collection of stories from Lorrie Moore in 16 years (that's 832 weeks!). Moore is dark, she's funny, she's is so fucking spot on that it's almost hard to believe. Was I disappointed that there were only a handful of stories here? Yes, I'm greedy and thankless. 

Here's the thing though: two of the eight stories are so devastatingly good and satisfying that I actually forgot that only eight stories made up the book. I also parsed that shit out, I'm not an idiot, she hasn't published a collection in 16 years, I refused to gobble it up in one sitting. One a day for a week. You know what that means? That's right, now I only have to wait 831 weeks for her next collection. Shaved off a week. It's called planning ahead, kids. #schoolin'

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Gianna's Top Twenty of 2014, Day 2

Non Fiction

Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film is a behind the scenes look and year-by-year companion to Linklater’s critically acclaimed masterpiece. So many things to love about this powerful book of photographs shot by Matt Lankes, which includes essays by Linklater, Hawke, Coltrane, and two really moving pieces by Patricia Arquette, and the film’s producer, Cathleen Sutherland.

The book contains over 200 images that illustrate, quite dramatically, the passage of time. It’s quite extraordinary and easily makes my top ten this year.  

Patricia Arquette

Ellar Coltrane


If you haven’t joined the church of Evie Wyld, you’re missing out. She is one of the finest writers working today. That’s right, and I called it after reading her debut, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, one of the finest debut novels that I’ve ever read. Yeah, shit just got real, didn’t it?

Evie Wyld 
Wyld’s follow up, All the Birds, Singing is even better and a bit more ambitious. Jake, a sheep farmer living alone on the British Coast, comes to find that something (or someone) is killing off her sheep one by one. If you happened to watch Jane Campion’s mini-series this year called Top of the Lake, run to read this novel. It’s that smart, dreamy, ominous, vivid, and rich.

If you like Dan Chaon, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, or even David Mitchell, you will love Evie Wyld. Read her now before she becomes super famous; there's nothing better than being first. Nothing. I wonder if somewhere Evie is writing something just as nice about me....

[Okay, Liz here: Gianna totally, 100%, without question, is mentioning All the Birds, Singing now because she knows that I've been Evie Wyld's biggest fan from the beginning and Gianna is trying to scoop me. That's some crap, there. I introduced Gianna to this author. She's stealing my picks. I'd file a complaint with the ombudsperson, but 1. we don't work for the same company, and 2. I have no idea who the ombudsperson is. Humph.]

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Gianna's Top Twenty of 2014. Day 1

I will read it!

It’s that dreaded time of year again when we list the best books we claim to have read and loved. For me it tends to be an exercise in humility. I try to come up with plausible reasons why this dumb dumb hasn’t read more, or better, or hipper, or smarter, or you know…without having to sound words out.

This year I am just going to immediately cop to the books I haven’t read that everyone else is putting atop their lists. This way you don’t have to wait until the end of my list to write me and tell me how disappointed you are that I haven’t read the Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests. I have every intention of reading it, I swear. I may as well admit I haven’t read The Bone Clocks yet (I know!).
this too!

Station Elven by Emily St. John Mandel. Yes, you loved it and can’t stop talking about it (oh how I wish you’d try). Here’s the thing though, at this point I feel like I am going to be so late to what has turned out to be the best party (well, dystopian party) of the year and maybe I just won’t go. Is it just party anxiety? Similarly I haven’t seen Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. See, I’m the absolute pits.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Sigh. Frankly I don’t feel bad that I haven’t read this; it keeps intact a record that I am pretty proud of. I haven’t read the top NYT Notable book in over one hundred years (or some number close to that), and I like the idea that year after year I blindly keep that record going. I dedicate this miss to my pal, Garland who tried in vain to get me to read this the same week it came out. 

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims by Rush Limbaugh. I know, another year has gone by and I have yet to read any books in this riveting young adult series. I picture disappointed ten year-old after disappointed ten year-old being handed this book by clueless grandparents all over the country. It really is the one time a child would prefer underwear or a five-dollar check. Or nothing at all.

In no particular order, here are my first two picks:


This is the one book on my list that I purchased at least partly (mostly) due to the title; Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism by Jennifer Percy.  The only words in a title that will make me reach for a book more quickly than the word “exorcism” is “women’s prison” (again, it’s little things like this admission that I really think make our blog stand out among the other more literary blogs. They seem to have standards and less cursing).

Percy’s book follows Caleb Daniels, a soldier returning from Afghanistan. Caleb was the lone survivor of a helicopter crash, which also took the life of his best friend. His PTSD is severe enough that he believes he is harboring a demon (he names it "The Destroyer," which is absolutely heartbreaking). His trauma brings him to the brink of suicide more than once, but what ultimately saves Caleb is a Christian exorcism.

A couple of things set this book apart from other war books. First, the writing is exquisite; Percy is absolutely gifted. Second, the book is about more than war, as Percy examines faith in America. There are a hundred different ways this book will break your heart. War, the way we as a country are not equipped to help returning soldiers (and what would that look like anyway), the helpless feeling Caleb’s family lives with (and by extension any family of a returning soldier), and the exorcisms themselves can’t be ignored, they too are heartbreaking.


Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995-2014 by Alice Munro was a must have for me this year. As I constantly cull my bookshelves for titles I no longer wish to keep--something I want to pass on to a fellow reader, a book I didn’t care for, or maybe less astute “impulse” purchases during one of my adorable drunk shopping trips to Book People--there's always Alice. My point is, I try to be more mindful of what I keep and Family Furnishings is a keeper.

Alice Munro
We’ve written about Munro a bit on the blog so I won’t drone on again why we love her, or the fact that she has been steadily turning out stunning and important work for decades. And we won’t chastise you for not reading Munro because you don’t “love” short stories (but definitely email us if this is true, because it drives us nuts).  I will tell you that she is arguably the best living storywriter at this moment and these selected stories represent some of her finest work from the past twenty years, and this collection deserves a spot on your shelf next to Oates, Roth, Murakami, or Franzen. Listen: if you continue down this path of ignoring Munro, your life will be empty, you’ll never be happy! Trust me, you’ll find yourself intoxicated at a local bookstore gripping a movie tie-in edition of Twilight making your way to the register, gripping a twenty dollar bill while the slightest bead of sweat builds on your brow with anticipation of what you think is going to be the novel of the century.  You will feel so foolish the next day because everyone, everyone knows, New Moon is the novel of the century.